Clowning Around: The Effect of Animated Animal films on the Public’s View of Animals

Throughout our lifetime, many of us have seen the positive effects of animation. We see how a show or movie can inspire a child to pick a new favorite animal, like loving clownfish after Finding Nemo. You might even want a pet clownfish yourself, but, what will happen if too many people want clownfish as pets? They become endangered. This is how the story unfolds after the release of “Finding Nemo” in 2003 when the species nearly went extinct. A clown fish named Marlin lives in the Great Barrier Reef and loses his son, Nemo. He ventures into the open sea, despite his father’s constant warnings about many of the ocean’s dangers. Nemo is then abducted by a boat, netted up, and sent to a dentist’s office in Sydney. The film is the journey to return Nemo to the sea.

The film’s entire message is that Nemo belongs in the ocean, NOT an aquarium. It was a shock to many, especially those individuals working in the field of biodiversity and conservation, that so people completely missed the theme and sought to buy wild-caught or farmed clownfish. 

Other films have also caused a spike in the purchasing of featured animals. Just one year after the 1996 release of “101 Dalmatians,” there was a 300 percent increase in dalmatian populations in shelters, which was caused by hundreds of impulse purchases of dalmatian puppies after the movie’s release. People soon realized that this breed doesn’t do too well with children, leading to mass abandonment at shelters. There was also a surge in owl sales after the Harry Potter films. The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie also spiked turtle sales.

From the article, “The 101 Dalmatian Effect.”

But! There is a silver lining to this gray cloud of information. Not only does animation increase sales of certain animals, but it also raises the public interest in those animals. The more public interest in the animals, the more funding and support they will receive. A study conducted in Japan measured how much an animated animal series rose public interest in animal conservation and zoo donations. They found that both zoos and animal-centered animation increased public interest in and support for endangered animals and they have great potential to contribute towards global biodiversity conservation.

While some may feel that movies like “Finding Nemo” or “101 Dalmatians” cause more harm than good, I strongly believe that they are invaluable in sparking the love of animals in children all around the world. Not only should we care about conserving natural habitats, but we should also care for the animals within them. Animated movies and shows are a great educational tool and they’re fun! There is so much more possible in the realm of animation: there are endless possibilities in how to foster an animal-loving mentality in kids and adults today. With more support from the public, endangered species have a much better chance of survival, therefore we need to increase the amount of animated material that focuses on animals and their importance to our world.


Leaving Neverland: Is Kids Entertainment Finally Growing Up?

When I was a little kid, I mostly watched shows such as Sesame Street, Tom and Jerry, and Spongebob, to name a few. They were all smart, charming, funny, and had an important message for the child audience like sharing or anti-bullying. When I was a kid, my only worries were homework, and I really wasn’t aware of how the world really was. The earliest major world event I can remember was the election of President Obama. But until that point, my innocence was being protected through color and song.

Fast forward to July of this year, I’m now in my 20s, and I discover a french stop-motion film called My Life As a Zucchini. I didn’t know much about it, but the colors and style looked absolutely adorable, and I was ready to have a joyful evening. However, it was to my surprise that by the time the end credits rolled, I was sobbing my eyes out. The Oscar nominated film follows a young boy named Zucchini, which is a nickname that he’s given to himself. After the death of his mother, Zucchini is sent to an orphanage where he meets other orphans and finds friendship and love.

Despite the film having a straightforward and typical family movie script and a cute visage, it has a rating of PG-13 for “thematic elements and suggestive material”. To add some context, this film explicitly discusses child abuse and trauma, mental illness, drug addiction, molestation, and police violence, all centered around the reasons why these kids are orphans. And despite this probably not being labeled as a “kids movie” to most, because of the rating, the mixture of the bright style and dark themes made me wonder: is this the start of normalizing mature elements in kids film and television, such as diversity and child abuse, and can that slowly teach them about important world issues? If so, I fully support this new direction. And to look deeper into this, I wanted to focus on American media in particular, to see if it was as open to this type of discussion as Europe. And it seems we’re already heading the right way.

First, my brain immediately went to Disney. Disney seems to constantly try and redeem themselves for their “outdated” content with their representation in princess movies, with each new princess coming from a different culture. In fact, a South Asian princess film was just announced. In 2016, Zootopia cleverly uses the concept of predator vs prey to comment on racism. But I wanted to find something more than just a concealed metaphor, plus I didn’t notice much representation on childhood struggles or disorders. My Life As A Zucchini’s goal is to directly speak to children that were in broken households, becoming a beacon of hope that they too can live happy lives. So then I looked to Sesame Street, who has never shied away from any topic. They have had various characters on the show that represent kids with different backgrounds, including children of divorce. In 2012, a character named Abby talked about how she has separated parents, and featured a song on how they still love her even if they aren’t together. They directly inform the audience on what these topics mean, and why it shouldn’t make kids feel different, but to show they still belong. This was what I was hoping to find, Sesame Street and My Life As a Zucchini are both able to use their style as a cushion that lets them inform the audience in a way they can digest and remember.

When it comes down to any topic on representation, especially right now in terms of race, there is the argument of if there is a certain age where kids should learn about the scary parts of the world. Should there be an age of innocence, such as the one I had? Frankly, I wish I learned more about social justice and representation at a younger age, I became more educated about discrimination in my three years of college than I did all those years growing up in my hometown. It would help solve a lot of issues if we are properly taught these things early, and aren’t just forced to choose which side we are on based on our environment. And to those who say that learning about this topic too early will prevent us from having a pure childhood, that ignorance will cause more damage down the line. If done the right way, we aren’t necessarily teaching them about the violence of discrimination rather we are removing it from their environment so the can actively stand against it for years to come.

Overall, My Life As A Zucchini made me realize the maturity in programming targeted towards younger audiences, and it makes me happy that our future generations will be more accepting to all communities. We need to start proactively teaching kids proper acceptance and understanding of race, LGBT+, disabilities, women’s rights, and more, instead of retroactively correcting the wrong behavior they had already learned. This can be a vital step in our journey to create an equal and free country.



Pixar’s Soul and the Challenges of Representation

The past decade has seen a widespread push for better representation of people of color in entertainment, as well as more diverse crews behind the scenes. Historically, popular cinema has been almost exclusively white, and when there have been characters of color on-screen, they’ve often been written by white writers drawing from outdated, harmful stereotypes. Animation is no exception to this rule. Encouragingly, the animation industry has in recent years started to move towards more diverse stories and crews. At the same time, the process has been hard-fought and slow, and racial representation, especially for Black creatives, continues to lag woefully behind.

It is into this changing landscape that Pixar’s upcoming animated feature Soul enters the conversation. The film’s protagonist is a black jazz musician named Joe Gardner (Pixar’s first black main character), and at the helm alongside Pixar heavyweight Pete Docter is co-director Kemp Powers (Pixar’s first black co-director). Needless to say, animation fans were initially excited to see this step forward in animated representation. However, many fans’ excitement turned to skepticism when, in the first teaser trailer, Joe left his Black body behind and transformed into an amorphous, blue spirit trapped in an ethereal world.

This is not the first time an animated protagonist of color has spent a long stretch of their movie in non-human form. Characters will often encounter a spell, a curse, a potion, or some other device that turns them into an animal, and they’ll have to go on a quest for the majority of the film’s runtime in order to change back. Examples include Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove, and Kenai from Brother Bear.

This has prompted many audiences, particularly audiences of color who long to see themselves represented in animation, to ask: why? In the words of journalist Monique Jones, the trope suggests an “inability to see Black characters’ innate humanity,” (see “Will Pixar’s ‘Soul’ Be A Repeat Of Racial Tropes?”) Furthermore, as journalist Andrew Tejada points out in his article on Soul, the transformation narrative misses out on the opportunity to show how the protagonist of color navigates the real world (see “Representation Without Transformation: Can Hollywood Stop Changing Cartoon Characters of Color?”). Dipping into a de-racialized fantasy realm erases the real-world experiences and struggles that the character might otherwise face, especially if the film is set in a specific time period or location. Whether the writers of these films intend it or not, it’s a dehumanizing trend.

Since the initial conversation formed around the film’s trailer, more information has come out about the film’s development and what seems to be a thorough effort from Pixar to center and listen to Black voices, despite the apparent oversight of the transformation narrative. According to recent panel presentations from the Soul team, they’ve partnered with prominent Black anthropologist Johnnetta Betsch Cole, prominent Black musicians like Jon Batiste and Questlove, and even an internal “culture trust” of Black Pixar employees to review story reels, offer notes and feedback, and guide the story towards a respectful and accurate final product. As previously mentioned, they also brought on screenwriter Kemp Powers to co-direct after deciding that the main character should be Black, and Powers cites his own personal experiences as a primary inspiration for the character Joe. It’s encouraging that Pixar felt it necessary and worthwhile to take these steps, and one hopes that this becomes the norm and leads to even more diverse and thoughtful productions at the studio going forward.

Unfortunately, it looks like these efforts did not prevent them from accidentally wading into the transformation trope like so many animated films in the past. It’s an important reminder that no amount of sensitivity reading or personal experience can make a project bulletproof against representational mistakes. The steps Pixar took were important, and undoubtedly they made the project better, but at the end of the day these are precautionary measures, and they don’t make the film exempt from criticism.

It’s also important to note that we don’t have all the information about this film. Firstly, it hasn’t actually been released yet, so the amount of actual screen time that Joe spends in his “soul” form remains to be seen, and, secondly, it’s hard to know what the film’s Black consultants were and were not asked to speak on. It’s possible that the “Soul form” idea was so fundamental to the project that it was off the negotiating table before it even came to their desks.

In any case, Soul reminds us all, especially those of us looking to create our own animated films, that representation matters, and getting it right is a difficult but necessary pursuit. We will all likely make mistakes as we work towards a more inclusive and equitable future, but the more we can listen to voices that are different from our own, the better our films, and our industry, will be.